A huge aspect of running a successful dynasty franchise is the identification of under-the-radar players who can round out the back-end of your roster, affording you a level of upside that belies their respective dynasty values. In fact, I wrote about this precise topic exactly two years ago – sure, three of the four players I chronicled failed to improve their position within the dynasty hierarchy, but one (Oakland running back Roy Helu) has seen his ADP climb a whopping 74.5 spots, or roughly six rounds and change. Say what you will about Helu’s potential in the Black Hole (I’m of the belief he should be considered a very serious contender for Latavius Murray’s presumed starting job), the indisputable fact remains that if you snagged Helu when he was at his cheapest, you could have cashed out for a relative fortune this off-season.
Part of what caused Helu’s value to climb was his looming free agent status at the conclusion of the 2014 season. As we know, the initial contracts for all non-first round NFL draft picks are four years in duration, without the inherent possibility of a fifth-year team option. When it comes to players who might not have broken out over the course of their initial NFL stanza, but appear talented to us nonetheless, free agency comes as a breath of fresh air to owners desperate for their guys to find a change of scenery.
The tenets above combine to form an overarching goal for back-end dynasty evaluation – upside is greater if the player is both talented and could soon see a beneficial change in environment. It’s in that vein I want to highlight a quartet of soon-to-be fourth-year players (a 4×4, if you will) and theoretical 2016 free agents who could essentially be had for the price of a firm handshake according to the most recent ADP data. Much like in my 2013 work linked above there’s a strong likelihood the majority of the players below won’t experience a seismic shift in fantasy viability, but when the name of the game is value accrual it always remains prudent to take these low-cost risks.
Let’s get started!
Chris Givens, WR STL
Essentially the NFL’s version of Benjamin Button, Givens’ numbers have steadily decreased following an impressive rookie campaign that saw the then-freshman lead the team in receiving yards (698). Continuing that thought, in a study I performed chronicling the 2012 rookie receivers, Givens’ future appeared bright as a potential PPR WR2. More anecdotally, I remember the following preseason when Givens dog-walked the Cleveland secondary to the tune of three receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown (in limited playing time), bolstering my belief he was set for a breakout.
Fast-forward to 2015 and Givens enters the 2015 season ostensibly behind Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin in the Rams’ receiving pecking order. He’s coming off a season where he had a mere 11 receptions for 159 yards and a score, and I highly doubt the arrival of Nick Foles at quarterback is going to do much to prompt a change. Simply put, Givens is now an afterthought both on his own team, and in dynasty football.
To that last point, according to the March ADP Givens isn’t even being selected in startup drafts. That’s certainly understandable in leagues where roster spots are precious and immediate fantasy output is necessitated, but in deeper leagues Givens makes for an excellent stash for forward-thinking owners. Team interest in the forgotten pass catcher is clearly minimal, and Givens should likewise desire to ply his wares in a different locale with a more creative offensive system – his future upside grossly outweighs his current price tag.
Nick Toon, WR NO
Unlike Givens, Toon is actually set up a bit better for the 2015 season. With the mystifying trades of Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills as part of the Saints’, ahem, “master plan,” there now exists a target vacuum in the Big Easy. And even with the forthcoming philosophical shift to a more run-heavy, ball-control offense, someone is going to need to catch passes when the need arises.
Toon hasn’t yet proven much of an ability to do so in the pros, but in college he was a standout for the Wisconsin Badgers, finishing fifth in the conference in terms of receiving yards-per-game in 2011. He also offers plus size (6’4”, 218 pounds) and athleticism (4.54-second 40-yard dash), traits that could and should come in handy due to the departure of red-zone matchup nightmare Graham. To that point, Toon converted a red-zone opportunity against the Steelers in a late-November clash, and largely finished the season on a high note (17-215-1 over the last six games).
As we saw with Givens, Toon is also an also-ran according to the March ADP. I’d expect that to change, if only incrementally, once the effects of free agency settle in, but he should still represent a bargain. If he plays well his value (both in the NFL and fantasy) will increase, but the Saints can’t keep kicking the can down the road as it relates to their salary cap and probably won’t be able to offer him much for 2016 and beyond – the time to buy is now.
Vick Ballard, RB IND
I’ll be the first to admit Ballard’s inclusion in this list is easily the diciest, as he’s shown nothing since a reasonable rookie season. The recent trade for Frank Gore adds literal insult on top of injury, with Ballard’s previous two seasons being truncated by an ACL injury (2013) and Achilles tear (2014). It remains to be seen how he’ll bounce back, and also how much of a shot he’ll get in 2015 behind Gore and Dan Herron, but I’m significantly more intrigued for the following year.
Again, Ballard represents a considerable drop-off from the ranks of football’s elite ball carriers, but showed enough in the passing game for me to believe he can function as a solid third-down running back at the worst. In PPR leagues, this is a trait that shouldn’t go undervalued. Admittedly, this stash makes greater sense in deeper formats, but Ballard is more than likely on the waiver wire in the vast majority of leagues – this gamble should come at no cost to intrepid owners.
Jarius Wright, WR MIN
Actually listed in the March ADP data (okay, it was the 231st overall pick in one draft out of six, but still), Wright likely carries with him the most value out of this small subset. He had the second-most receiving yards for the 2014 Vikings, while also finishing second in receptions amongst pass catchers (running back Matt Asiata was second overall on the team). Last year also represented career bests in targets, receptions and yards for the young receiver, and during his time in the NFL Wright has improved his numbers each season.
It’s true Mike Wallace was brought in via trade and Charles Johnson looked good in the later stages of Minnesota’s 2014 campaign. However, these events are at least somewhat counterbalanced by the release of leading receiver Greg Jennings, as well as former first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson taking up residence in coordinator Norv Turner’s doghouse. This leaves Wright as the team’s slot receiver, where I expect him to continue to improve.
In the article linked above in the section about Givens, it was shown that, at least in a small sample size, Wright previously displayed traits of a fantasy WR1. While this may never come to fruition, it’s evident he remains an ascendant player. Like the others listed here Wright has the potential to truly enter his own should he find a team willing to use him in more of a featured role – it wouldn’t shock me at all if he makes a Helu-esque leap in value over the course of the next year.
Follow me on Twitter @EDH_27
You can find his (typically strong and hopefully reasonable) opinions on Twitter at@EDH_27.